Thursday, February 17, 2011

on fairytales

The first word I can remember reading was in a fairy tale, and folk and fairy tales have long had a fascination for me. When I was growing up (or when I was a teenager even) we had a collection of books at home by Ruth Manning Sanders (A Book of Dragons, A Book of Sorcerers and Spells etc.) which rekindled that interest after fairy tales had become overly familiar and a little bit boring. These books had a selection of fairy tales from around the world on a specific theme (dragons or sorcerers for instance), which meant that it had a wider range of stories than I was used to and made me aware of the universality of fairy tales. Tales from all over the world were familiar, there are so many variations on Cinderella. And yet, they were not the same stories that I had read. There are dragons from all over the world, but Chinese dragons are very different from European dragons.

I am not the first person to be fascinated by fairy tales, of course, or to notice that there are similar types of stories retold around the world. There has been much written about them, they have been collected, classified, analysed, told and retold, written, rewritten, parodied and sung. The questions that come up time and time again are: why are we interested in these stories? why do we tell the same stories? and what makes a 'proper' fairy tale?

Reading The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter and The Grimm Reader (edited and translated by Maria Tatar) has brought up these questions again for me. Specifically- what makes a satisfying fairy tale? And what is so fascinating about these stories? Interestingly, reading the introductions to The Grimm Reader and The Bloody Chamber brought out some similarities- both referred to the stories within as 'flat' or 'concerned with surfaces'. I don't think that all fairy-tale retellings are successful, but Angela Carter's worked for me, and perhaps that is why. Not because the stories are superficial, perhaps the opposite, they conceal meaning as much as they reveal it. Tales in both collections are largely unexplained, we often are not introduced into the world or its conventions, things happen, and that is all. But there is more going on- we do not need to be introduced into the world of fairy-tales because we already know its conventions, things lead to the happy ending. 

Of course meaning is often added to stories like this. There are morals at the end, there is deconstruction in the retelling. I think deconstruction is the bane of many a modern fairy-tale retelling, they become over-earnest, too explicit in meaning, they lose the magic of the true fairy-tale. Something that has come to annoy me is the way many 'feminist' retellings react more against modern fairy-tale selection than fairy-tales themselves. There are brave and clever heroines in the Grimm tales, not all happy endings involve marriage, marriage is used as a happy ending for both men and women. I think so commonly fairy-tales are seen differently to this, but it is through the popularity of a select number of tales that this perception has come to be. Rather than subvert those tales, why not retell the others, restore the fairy-tale balance? 

The moral at the end is less offensive to me, I do not mind if my fairy-tales have morals or not. Generally the hero or heroine wins through because they are clever, or kind, or beautiful. In terms of meaning, Angela Carter said that rather than wanting to retell the tales she wanted to make them into new stories, to bring out the existing meanings. I think she does that well, in that she manages to keep the spirit of the existing tales, and meanings may be emphasised but they are not spelt out or shoe-horned in to the existing story. 

People have looked for more meaning in fairy-tales and folk-tales. For psychological, or societal readings, for the common thread that binds us all together, for the origin of story-telling. Some of these are fairly compelling (this discussion of Bluebeard, for instance, is pretty interesting), but some are less so. Who know if the fairy-tales we know today really represent the first stories people told, as some claim? They're hard to date because they were largely passed on orally. Maybe it's enough to say that they're among the first stories we are told as children, to explain their popularity and fascination. We keep coming back to the same stories, and making them into new stories. That fits with the oral tradition, these stories change with each retelling. But I think a true fairy-tale should not be self-concious, should focus on enchantment, and should let meaning seep through as though coming from the beginning of consciousness.


  1. Anonymous20/2/11 23:01

    tell an honest story, and let people draw their own concusions?

  2. This is a great post!

    To be honest, what interests me the most is not so much the inherent sexism of (some) fairytales, but the fact that the ones that are the most sexist (the ones which are mostly about helpless women being saved by men, and, specifically, by marriage) are also the most popular. Those were the ones chosen to be adapted by Disney and thus deemed most appropriate for children.

    I would be intrigued to know why this was, and the cultural reasons for choice of these fairytales for prominence, and the attitudes towards fairytales in popular culture that their prominence has helped shape.

  3. Is a fairy-tale an honest story?

    Ronni: Thanks!
    That is an interesting question, it's really interesting to look at the popular context for fairy-tales and their retellings. I read a book a while ago, I think it was Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked by Catherine Orenstein which was a great look at the evolutions/contexts of the telling of that one particular tale. I'd love to do more reading on it though and get a wider perspective.

    Cinderella is an interesting one, it's one of the most widely told (I think?), apparently the first recorded version is from medieval China, and there are many many versions out there, including a Disney one of course. In the Bluebeard site I linked to they talk about French retellings aimed at preparing young girls for marriage, maybe that influenced the selection process? Interesting interpretation anyway.

  4. Anonymous16/3/11 21:42

    a long time between blog posts...

  5. hmmm yes, I'm not doind very well at my 'post more often' goal am I? I do have a half-written post on the go, so hopefully I will manage to fix it up a bit and post it soon.

  6. Anonymous18/3/11 19:57

    your public waits...